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US officials closely watching sham referendums in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and preparing to act

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By Kaitlan Collins, CNN

White House officials are watching closely and preparing their potential response Monday as four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine continued to vote in referendums that are being effectively carried out at gunpoint and have been dismissed by the West as a sham.

With the results of the Russian-organized voting expected to be announced as soon as Tuesday, US officials anticipate Russia could move quickly to annex the four areas, potentially within days. Doing so would prompt a swift response from the US, which has pledged not to recognize the results, one official said.

The US is not currently expected to respond until Russia has moved to annex the regions, the official said, and whether Russia ultimately attempts to do so remains to be seen.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in recent days that Russia has already decided in advance what will happen after these referendums are finished, stating that by “the end of the month, Russia’s intention will be to formalize the annexation of the four regions into the Russian Federation.”

As they monitor the referendums, top Biden administration officials have become more vocal in recent days about warnings they have delivered in private to Russian officials about the potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“Russia understands very well what the US would do in response to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine because we have spelled it out for them,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a television interview Sunday, though he declined to characterize who received those warnings or what the consequences would be.

While officials have still not seen indications that Russia is planning to use nuclear weapons in the near term, they are more concerned about the possibility now than they were six or seven months ago, one official confirmed to CNN, though they still maintain that the likelihood of Russia doing so is low.

Asked about the chances of nuclear weapons use, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We take these threats very seriously, but we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time.”

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